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Mapping Curricular Assemblages

by Paul William Eaton & Petra Munro Hendry - 2019

Background/Context: This article advances scholarship from curriculum theorists, educational philosophers, and educational researchers unpacking the dehumanizing aspects of education.

Focus of Study: The article maps the role of the tree as a measuring and organizing apparatus of curriculum and unpacks possibilities for utilizing rhizomes as a way to create movement in conceptualizing curriculum.

Research Design: In this article, we utilize Jackson and Mazzei’s concept of thinking with theory. We bring into conversation Deleuze and Guattari’s theoretical concepts of assemblage, arborescence, rhizomatics, and deterritorializing and Karen Barad’s concepts of entanglement and intra-action.

Conclusions: The article proposes envisioning the tree and the rhizome as mutually constituted in contemporary curriculum discourses but asserts the continuing dominance of the tree as limiting the relational capacities of curriculum. Thinking curriculum arborescently dehumanizes contemporary schooling and education by reducing students, teachers, classrooms, and schools to data points. Rhizomatic thinking opens space for a relational, ethical, and ontological educative process of being~becoming.

The plan(e) is infinite, you can start it in a thousand different ways; you will always find something that comes too late or too early, forcing you to recompose all of your relations of speed and slowness, all of your affects and to rearrange the overall assemblage.


Deleuze and Guattari (1987, p. 259)

This essay is written given what we see as an urgent need to recompose and rearrange curricular assemblages. We are deeply troubled by the dominant assemblage of curriculum which functions to reduce the relational nature of curriculum through the construction of schools and students as data, deficit, depleted, failing, and broken (Tuck, 2009). We suggest that these notions arise from the prevailing curriculum assemblage deeply rooted in a Western construct that orders the world: the tree. The tree as an arborescent assemblage constructs curriculum as grounded in a singular root, implying an origin, a bounded system that develops over time by taking the whole and reducing it into its smallest parts. Like a machine, the tree structures, classifies and produces a system, a technology of power-knowledge through representation. Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) notion of the assemblage as a complex constellation of networks, an open, dynamic, generative system of relationships, is for us an important concept with which we think curriculum differently. This is not merely an ideological or philosophical endeavor, but one that we see as critical to the existence of a relational web of living systems (meaning both the human and non-human) in~through which we are constituted.

In an age where discourses of accountability, standardization, productivity, and science as the gold standard for research dominate the conversation, curriculum has been reduced to a simplistic view of a linear input-output transaction (Cochran-Smith, 2003; Lather, 2009; Strom, 2015). This linear transaction is one type of curriculum assemblage that Delueze and Guattari (1987) describe as the “compulsory teaching machine” (p. 75), which functions to order the word (and the world) not through communication, but through the order-word, which compels obedience. Mapping the assemblages of curriculum, we seek to open space to “think and live education differently” (St. Pierre, 2004, pp. 284–285). We would like to plug into other machines that transform and electrify us to engage in curricular assemblages that take us to spaces which embed us in the living systems of being~becoming, not systems of information~obedience that order and kill knowledge through representation (Foucault, 1970; Serres, 1997).

Arborescent assemblages are rooted in reductionist, linear, epistemological notions of curriculum whereas rhizomatic assemblages are based on seeing all matter and meaning as holistically relational. While vastly different, these curricular assemblages co-exist in a complex entangled relationship within contemporary discourses of curriculum. However, arborescent thinking continues to dominate. Dominant narratives of curriculum history exemplify this arborescent, tree-like curriculum of progress: modernist to postmodernist, scientific to progressive, subject centered to child centered, repressive to emancipatory, technocratic to humanistic, and so on. Consequently, our thinking with Deleuze and Guatarri is focused on how this linear, bounded, reductionist, mechanistic, binary, arborescent assemblage of curriculum has been made not only thinkable, but also inevitable and real1. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) maintain, “it is odd how the tree has dominated Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, but also gnosiology, theology, ontology and all of philosophy . . . the root-foundation, Grund, racine, fondement” (p. 18).

The West is “grounded” in a philosophy of transcendence, a metaphysical worldview based in separation, on the individuation of man from culture, God from human. The origin story in the “Western” humanist sense, as Donna Haraway (2000) posits, “depends on the myth of original unity, fullness bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother [Eve] from whom all humans must separate . . . individuation and gender formation, depend on the plot of original unity out of which difference must be produced” (p. 292). The tree from which Eve eats the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden is the tree of knowledge, that which has been implanted “in our bodies, rigidifying and stratifying even the sexes. . . we have lost the rhizome” (Deleuze & Guatarri, 1987, p. 18). It is the “tree of knowledge” that stratifies, separates, creates binaries and subjugates growth to re/production that shapes the rigid, linear arborescent/tree-like machine of the West. Alternatively, the rhizome, unlike the root, is unpredictable, always in flux, constantly becoming different (Figure 1). Expulsion from the garden, the cut from the rhizome, has functioned to guarantee difference~separation. The notion of separation is foundational to the project of representation that, as Karen Barad (2007) reminds us, is the basis of modernist science.

Figure 1. Arborescent Tree and Rhizome


We continually re-turn to the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987) to remind ourselves that the plane of curriculum is infinite. The curriculum assemblage that we envision is a complex rhizomatic process, one Elizabeth deFreitas (2012) describes as a “nonhierarchical network of entangled and knotted loops, folding and growing through multiple sites of exit and entry” (p. 588). However, we do not mean to suggest that “arborescent thought” (hierarchical, positivistic, essentialist) and “rhizomatic thought” (unpredictable, nonlinear, multiplistic) are dichotomous. Kathryn Strom (2016) reminds us that trees and rhizomes “are implicated in each other” (p. 136). Thus, our mapping recognizes the entanglement and co-existence of arborescent and rhizomatic curricular processes. We do not seek progress from one paradigm to another. Moving from arborescent to rhizomatic only perpetuates linear, teleological notions we seek to disrupt. However, more completely mapping the impacts of arborescence on our thinking curriculum, coupled with exploring possibilities of plugging into a rhizomatic curricular assemblage, creates movement in curriculum theorizing. Such movement recognizes that curriculum already is a complex constellation that defies representation.

Much of our thinking about rhizomatic assemblages has been informed by quantum physics and the new sciences of Karen Barad (2007) and Fritjof Capra (1996), whose science rejects reductionism and embraces systems theory, complexity theory and chaos theory as a science of matter and meaning. A rhizomatic assemblage conceives of curriculum not as a product, but as a phenomena or process in which educational systems and subjectivities are living, breathing systems constituted through “intra-actions.” The concept of intra-action, drawn from the new sciences, proposes that distinct agencies do not precede their entanglement (Barad, 2007). Agencies, in this case curriculum, are always rhizomatic, in that they are relational, dynamic, emergent, indeterminate, and living; not absolute. Curriculum as a rhizomatic assemblage is not solely an epistemological project (one concerned with knowledge/production); this is reserved for the tree. Rather, curriculum as a rhizomatic assemblage becomes an ethico-onto-epistemological engagement (one concerned with being and becoming) (Barad, 2012).

This engagement is a process so deeply embedded in intra-actions that it defies representation, language or naming. In order to map how curricular assemblages of arborescence and rhizomatics make particular ways of thinking~living curriculum possible, we have focused our attention on four concepts in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy and are “thinking with” these about curriculum (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). They are assemblage, arborescence, rhizomatics, and deterritorializing. These concepts help us to understand how curriculum as we know it has become “thinkable” and simultaneously take curriculum out of “thought” (or the project of representation).


Representationalism assumes that thought is a faithful interior representation of the “outside” within an autonomous subject, and consequently, recognition becomes the chief tool of thought.

Roy (2003, p. 19).

As suggested by Kustav Roy, curriculum is not a box that we stand outside of as autonomous subjects in order to recognize and look inside. Instead, approaching curriculum as an assemblage is like plugging into an electric circuit—there are no stable, discrete entities, only dynamic singularities, combining, moving, disentangling and reconnecting. Assemblages are only temporary and always shifting (Roy, 2003). As assemblage, all is imbibed as curriculum—not simply humans, texts, schools, or classrooms. Thus, there is no beginning, no ending, no past, present, or future because systems are never inherently complete. This means we can plug into a system, becoming part of its interrelationships and circuitry. This indeterminate, non-linear, emergent understanding of curriculum is in stark contrast to the deeply sedimented and arborescent ways in which the history of curriculum is understood as an inevitable narrative of progress and linear teleological change en route to representational signification.

Like other educators who draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of assemblage (Gough & Sellers, 2016; Reynolds & Webber, 2016; Roy, 2003; Strom, 2015), we are also drawn to the concept to challenge overly deterministic theories of curriculum that assume representationalism. Assemblage, then, is a concept we draw upon to see the world in a radically different way. In particular, we desire to see what impact such a perception might have on our relation to curriculum. Assemblages are formed from the combinations of elements, all kinds of things, both material and nonmaterial, brought into relation through relatively random encounters where they then “come into composition in different ways at different times to produce a particular activity” (such as curriculum) (Strom, 2015, p. 2). It describes a process, an assembling, rather than a fixed combination. The term assemblage (a translation from the original French agencement) can be misleading in drawing up images of the kind of assembly line production that mass produces identical objects—for example, many chairs made the same way according to fixed instructions. Instead it is a more fortuitous arrangement of various elements that are not necessarily meant to be together in the first place, but in coming together make a functioning whole.

Assemblage theory is an approach to systems analysis that assumes fluidity, emergence, adaptation, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities. Assemblages appear to be functioning as a whole but are actually coherent bits of a system whose components can be yanked out of one system, plugged into another, and still work. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) recognize that some assemblages are heavily structured, although this is not their inherent nature. Those more rigid assemblages are the product of strong forces. Strong forces are those that emerge in a system through the repetition of forms, rather than self-organization and emergence. The tree is an example of a strong force that has dominated Western thought for thousands of years by maintaining a closed system that functions in a mechanistic, cause-effect manner in which “stability, centers-of-balance, and equilibrium are key ingredients” (Doll, 1993, p. 14). The tree as curricular metaphor assumes an independent, autonomous, and rooted stability that is grounded in stasis. Plugging the tree into an assemblage, an open system, does not negate the tree, but situates it within a living, dynamic, complex system in which change and transformation are critical processes.


Thus, we come to the crux of our argument. Current curriculum assemblages—our entire envisioning of how curriculum structures the lived and known experience, schools, classrooms, teacher and student relationships, our relationship to knowledge, to each other, and to the more-than-human world, retains a stubborn adherence to arborescent models. How arborescence—the vision and employment of the tree as the structuring model of curriculum—has come to and continues to dominate our thinking in education must be wrestled with.

We are reluctant to conduct a linear, historical tracing of the tree, given our critique of representational views of time and knowledge as linear. In moving away from history as representation we shift the focus from history as a correspondence between description and reality, and instead shift to “matters of practices, doings, and actions” (Barad, 2007, p. 135). The doing that we engage seeks to excavate boundary-making practices by which humans and others are “differentially delineated and defined;” what Barad (2007) refers to as a “cut” (p. 136). So, the first cut is the separation of humans from the rhizome; humans as solely related to the tree, rather than the full garden.

In the very first chapter of their tome A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari (1987) attempt to unpack the problems that arise from our continued adherence to the tree. “We’re tired of trees,” write Deleuze and Guattari (1987). “We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much” (p. 15). They continue: “if we ask the general question, ‘what holds things [curriculum] together?’ the clearest easiest answer seems to be provided by a formalizing, linear, hierarchized, centralized, arborescent model” (p. 327). Trees are genealogical, where by contrast “the rhizome is an antigenealogy” (p. 21). The tree comes to symbolize and create the distinction between subject and object, between signifier and signified, encompassing the whole of dualistic logic through its branching patterns, through its definitions of set pathways between root and branch.

Arborescence, understood as the linear coupling of concepts in rigid, path-like structures, provides visually acute means of organizing what we term modern, dominant conceptualizations of curriculum and schooling. Arborescent models help us understand how curriculum as we know it has become “thinkable.” The idea of “thinking” and “knowing” as separate from “living” or “becoming” only gradually took hold in popular Western imagination (Hendry, Mitchell, & Eaton, 2018). In tracing the visual imagery of the tree through the West2, we come to understand how arborescence shifted and morphed into the dominant metaphor for organizing knowledge, one’s relationship to knowledge, education, and schooling.

There is the Porphyrian Tree (Figure 2). First articulated by the Greek logician and philosopher Porphyry in the third century, the Porphyrian tree was based on Aristotelian logic of categories (Stagoll, 2010). Logical thought sought to divide much of the world into dichotomous variables—genus versus species, for example. It was thought one could continue such divisions down to the lowest level, until one could no longer subdivide—and in this way, one could come to organize and classify knowledge into discrete, manageable, and knowable thought. Although Porphyry himself never drew what has become known as a Porphyry Tree, others soon started using the tree as a way of mapping and visualizing knowledge (Figure 2) (Lima, 2013; 2015).

Figure 2. Porphyry Tree


Religious and spiritual conversion functions centrally to the story of how the tree became an organizing concept in our relationship to knowledge. Religious traditions built on the Bible are well known to many in the West. Eve eating the apple from the tree in the Garden of Eden is often cited as a moment where the loss of innocence began: the apple ushered in Adam and Eve’s knowing their nakedness, for example. While this story is certainly central to Western imagination, Robinson (2006) and Lima (2013) reminds us of the importance of trees as visual metaphor in all three Western religious traditions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity). In the Qu’ran, there is only one tree: the Tree of Immortality (Figure 3). The Bible mentions two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Judaism, the tradition of Kaballah also utilizes the visual metaphor of the Tree of Life (Figure 4). Each of these religious traditions harnesses the visual metaphor of the tree somewhat differently. In the Jewish and Islamic tradition, the tree becomes a visual metaphor for life and gnosis (Davis, 2004), with a central emphasis on meaning, not knowledge. In Catholic and Christian traditions, the tree is harnessed not only as a visual metaphor for life, but also as a source of knowing.

Figure 3. Tree of Immortality from the Qu’ran


Figure 4. Tree of Life: Kabbalah Tradition


According to Robinson (2006), in the 13th century, Christians of the Iberian Peninsula co-opted the tree of life central to Islamic and Judaic traditions into a visual metaphor for organizing the knowledge of religious conversion; the tree of life became trees of knowledge. The co-opting of the tree to organize knowledge and religious tradition becomes a critical moment in solidifying the arborescent model in the Western tradition. This co-option of the tree continues to influence our thinking and being today.

The 13th century also saw publication of Ramon Llull’s book Arbor Scientiae (Robinson, 2006) (Figure 5). In this text, Llull creates seven trees related to religious knowledge, representative of knowledge needed by Christians to reach paradise. However, the text itself contains some sixteen trees of science (Lima, 2013). Some of the religious trees included the Tree of Love, Angelic Tree, Maternal Tree, Divine Tree, Christologic Tree, and Celestial Tree. According to Robinson (2006),

Llull’s book will serve to represent and to explain all knowledge a Christian (or an

aspiring Christian) would need to reach paradise, itself represented in the final celestial tree, which will help readers to envision paradise as the lush, flower, and fruit-laden branches of an enormous tree. (p. 402)

Envisioning paradise as one “enormous tree” harkens back to Judaic and Islamic traditions of one Tree of Life. In Arbor Scientiae, Llull utilized the visual imagery of the tree to not only create a forest, with various trees of knowledge, but also spoke across religious traditions—Christianity, Judaism, mysticism, and Islam—toward ends of religious conversion.

Figure 5. Llull’s Arbor Scientaie


While we can map the Porphyrian Tree and Llull’s trees of science, and their concomitant influence on the organization of thought from the third through the 15th century, it was not until the age of Enlightenment in the 16th century that “curriculum” takes shape as an idea/apparatus, in other words an abstraction, that functions to make possible “representation” through systems of classification that resulted in the production knowledge as an object (the tree). As Foucault (1970) explicated in The Order of Things, the Classical Age, coupled with forces ushered in by the Protestant Reformation, shifted and rearranged the assemblage of knowledge to an episteme of representation whose correspondence is to an order that exists. Coinciding with the rise of nationalism, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the printing press, the Reformation marked the transition from the medieval to the modern age. Nowhere did this shift to modernity have greater impact than in major changes to concepts of knowledge, teaching and education. Prior to the classical age, teaching had been done through dialogue, either through conversation or through a formal argument (rhetoric) or disputation between the student and teacher (Trueit, 2012). In fact, Ong (1958/1983) maintains that the sixteenth century had no word in ordinary usage that clearly expressed what we mean today by method—“a series of ordered steps gone through to produce with certain efficacy a desired effect,—a routine of efficiency” (p. 225). According to Ong (1958/1983), “this notion is not entirely missing . . . but it has no independent existence” (p. 225). While the concept of order was not absent in medieval thinking, it tended to be focused on the order of the mind or discourse (rhetoric); in other words, a routine of thinking. This shift from rhetoric to a method of logic that became embodied in the construct of curriculum as the ordering/classification of knowledge certainly did not occur overnight but is often associated with one particular individual: Peter Ramus (1515–1572).

Doll (2005) discusses the rise of such structuring proclivities in education, attributing the Ramus chart (Figure 6) as one moment ushering in hierarchical, arborescent conceptualizations of curriculum as method. Ramus was a schoolteacher at the Collége de Presles. Learning, rather than study (a significant shift to which we will return later in the paper), became for Ramus the goal of his teaching. As a means to simplify or short cut the procedures of his students he created a map that attempted to codify knowledge and present the student with a linear process by which to attain that knowledge. According to Doll (2012), “in charting knowledge in this way, Ramus in the interest of pedagogical expediency ‘dissociated knowledge from discourse’ (Ong, 1983 [1958], Preface)” (p. 92). Teaching now moved from laying out issues for discussion to disseminating knowledge for absorption” (pp. 92–94). The shift from study to learning, and from rhetoric to knowledge, necessitated method. Teaching was reduced from the universal and general principles of dialogue and rhetoric to a technology which required method through which instruction was understood as an ordering reduced to the smallest, singular parts.

Figure 6. Ramus Chart (1544)


In Figure 6, we have purposely flipped the Ramus chart 90 degrees to demonstrate how the chart itself harnesses the visual imagery of the tree. Hamilton (2009) unpacks more completely the development of the Ramist chart, but broadly Ramus was concerned with issues of dialectics. At the “root” of dialectics is the most fundamental conceptual knowledge; that upon which all other knowledge is built. Ramus believed that starting with the root allowed for generalizability of knowledge, pedagogy, and teaching. Although initially controversial, Ramus’ ideas about reducing all knowledge to a foundational root and then controlling the delivery of knowledge from the simplest to the most complex emerged as the organizing principle of European universities (Hamilton, 2009). The “tree” became central to the organizing of methodical curriculum as we know it today.

This “method” of teaching had great appeal to Protestants, who adopted Ramus’ maps in Calvinist universities throughout Europe (McKnight, 2003; Trohler, 2011). Puritan leaders, trained in and by Ramist curriculum maps at British universities before coming to America, were well versed in the utilitarian nature of Ramus’ curriculum. For the Puritans, “without a reasoned, linear method, one could never understand and explicate, by way of a spiritual narration, one’s conversion” (McKnight, 2003, p. 54). The Puritans adopted method at Harvard as well as throughout the schools and churches in colonial New England.

The Ramist chart of formalized curriculum is familiar to many of us working in education. Models of learning (rather than study) arose from such arborescent and linear assemblages and value epistemological knowledge over ontological engagements. There are a series of facts, figures, methods, or processes that we “know,” and our aim is to clearly, efficiently, and succinctly guide students and ourselves through these epistemological fields. The limitations of this shift from study to learning has been discussed and debated previously within the field of curriculum theorizing (Biesta, 2011, 2014; Dillard, 2012; Lewis, 2013; Pinar, 2006).

Arborescent models of curriculum retain a radical stranglehold on our thinking and being despite efforts by curriculum scholars, new empiricists, and researchers of quantum physics or complexity sciences, to challenge the very underpinnings of rigid, linear, structured engagements with the world (Capra, 1996; Coole & Frost, 2010; Maturana & Varela, 1987; Reynolds & Webber, 2016). Ongoing visualization in the field of curriculum that retains adherence to images of trees epitomizes how assemblages retain their imaginary and real power by attempting to capture that which is escaping. This is what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) refer to as reterritorialization through processes of striation: “power that controls, sedates, imposes, and limits” (Ibrahim, 2014, p. 29).

What we are calling the ongoing reterritorializing striation of arborescence is all around us in curriculum, pedagogy, and theory. Take these images (Figures 7, 8, & 9) we have curated from several texts on a variety of issues related to education. What we see are various attempts at controlling the flow of knowledge; of breaking up and removing from relationship ways of knowing and being that may be connected, but in our desires for control, structure, representation, become un- or disentangled. In 2004 Brent Davis wrote Inventions of Teaching—a book that traces how knowledge and theoretical traditions have structured our metaphors of teaching. In this text, Davis embraces and harnesses the figure of the tree to organize his examination, which ultimately imposes arborescent thinking (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Brent Davis’ Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy


A particularly poignant example of this reterritorializing striation in curriculum theorizing comes from Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2015). In their tracing, education currently is operating in a new moment, which the authors describe as systemic sustainability education. Ushered in by shifts in our global understanding of associated problems with a centering of the human, the rise of technological innovations, and advances in new sciences, Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2015) advocate for more networked, contingent, and shifting curricula. In their visualization of systemic sustainability education, the authors utilize more rhizomatic~networked visual representations. While we (the authors of this essay) may take issue with Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler’s (2015) continued insistence on using the word learning over study, their shift to focusing on more rhizomatic, networked, and contingent assemblages of curricula are a welcome addition to the literature.

Yet, we are troubled by the hegemony of the tree (Figure 8). One should not judge a book by its cover, necessarily. However, in our thinking, the decision to place a tree onto the cover of this text reimposes arborescent thinking. It also captures eloquently precisely how processes of reterritorializing striation work in our collective memory and daily-lived experiences. Though Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2015) work to trace a history of curricular moments; and although they arrive and advocate for more rhizomatic approaches to our curricular engagements, the tree remains. The tree structures how one might begin engaging this text, and whether consciously or unconsciously, may cause readers to believe that our current moment—that of systemic sustainability education—is simply a naturally arising, linear, progressive moment, following a teleological and linear path. Further, the vision of the tree might impose some understanding that this curricular moment is somehow different from—disconnected in relationship—to other curricular moments. We disagree with this way of thinking and argue that the cover of the text reasserts the dominance of arborescent thinking into shifting conceptualizations of curricular assemblages. The tree wins again.

Figure 8. Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler’s Book Cover Engaging Minds


As another example, Berila’s (2015) text on mindfulness, social justice, and education, demonstrates how reterritorializing striation structures our thinking, interrupting relationships (Figure 9). In this arborescent model of the tree of contemplative practices, upon which the text draws, the branch of “stillness” includes silence and quieting the mind. This branch is disconnected from the “movement” branch, which entails activities such as walking meditation or labyrinth practices. What makes these processes, ways of being, or ways of knowing disconnected? Can we not walk in silence? Is stillness necessarily connected with lack of movement? Would these mindfulness practices be better represented not arborescently, as Berila does in the text, but rather rhizomatically; always in the middle and always in relation?

Figure 9. Tree of Contemplative Practices


What each of these examples demonstrates is a (semi)hierarchical, formalized curriculum—the path or plan that guides students through a formal course of study. We propose that ongoing visions of the tree in these texts and curricular assemblages might be conceptualized as a form of reterritorializing striation; the visual imagery of the tree limits or sets within boundaries particular pathways of academic disciplinary knowledge that should be adhered to during a formalized or structured educational experience. This is the arborescent Ramus chart. While there are increasing pressures to retain adherence to such striated spaces in formalized education, Deleuze and Guattari’s coupling of arborescence with rhizomatics recognizes that there is another way of envisioning curriculum.  


The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. . . the rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a general and without an organizing memory.

(Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 21)

Complexity sciences and quantum physics have challenged the traditional “hard” sciences—biology and physics, for example—to open our minds to the boundless possibilities for recognizing the intra-connected nature of a constantly shifting, divergent world and cosmology. In complexity sciences, there has been an ever-evolving shift from a Newtonian, mechanistic worldview, to one in which self-organization and autopoiesis are central (Capra, 1996; Doll, 1993; Prigogine & Stengers, 1984) (Figure 10). Both of these concepts account for environmental conditions as necessarily embedded in how particular systems reproduce, shift, or respond to even slight changes in local conditions. While patterns may emerge, autopoietic self-organizing systems might radically change at any time. Thus, autopoietic self-organizing systems are more ontological; they are constantly becoming. This makes the logics of representationalism and arborescence impossible.

Figure 10. Autopoiesis (Anton Granik, Flickr.com)


These perspectives center a holistic worldview, “seeing the world as an integrated whole, rather than a dissociated collection of parts” (Capra, 1996, p. 6). This work is not necessarily ‘new,’ in that many indigenous, Eastern, and non-Western ontologies are predicated on cosmic relationality and ethics (Smith, 2008; Eppert & Wang, 2008). Consequently, complexity sciences draw on western hard sciences, culture, and ancient wisdom traditions to envision a radically different approach to science, one that is a process-oriented, systems-oriented paradigm understanding the cosmos as a living, interdependent system constituted through relationships.

This relational becoming of the world challenges notions of representationalism and makes possible Barad’s (2007) notion of momentary intelligibility. Figure 8—which purports to represent a self-organizing, autopoietic system, is a false representation. The visual serves solely to stimulate thought about the complexity of rhizomatic curricular assemblages. The image is chaotic; non-linear; entangled; and indeterminate, seemingly without boundaries. What assembles is connected and reliant on vast amounts of spacetime; the system moves through the open spaces, almost creeping and retreating, assembling and disassembling. Perhaps most importantly, autopoietic self-organizing systems imagine the world as non-reductive relationships. Humans, words, books, schools, plants, microorganisms, history, space: none of these conceptualizations that dominate an arborescent worldview are truly thinkable in rhizomatic assemblages because these concepts are only thinkable relationally. Nothing is reducible to its smallest parts because the whole contains a sum of relational parts, and relational parts contain the whole. Indeterminacy dominates, and thus representationalism comes “cascading down” (Barad, 2007, p. 397).

Similar ideas are being advanced in quantum physics (Rovelli, 2016). According to Barad (2007), quantum physics’ basic premise is that the world is not “composed of individual objects with individually determinate boundaries and properties whose well-defined values can be represented by abstract universal concepts that have determinate meanings independent of the specifics of experimental practice” (p. 107). For example, there are not particles and waves as we are classically taught in arborescent models of physics. Attempts aimed at drawing boundaries around distinct “entities” in physics have failed given Neil Bohrs’ philosophy physics in which he radically challenged “that measurements reveal the preexisting values of the properties of independently existing objects as separate from the measuring agencies” (Barad, 2007, p. 107).

Barad (2007) refers to this measuring and representational problem as a question of the “apparatus.” The apparatus is a measuring machine—and as humans create any apparatus, it will always be flawed. Apparati do not help us discover reality; rather, they allow us to construct a reality that conforms and adheres to the functioning apparatus itself. Barad’s example—how Neils Bohr came to discover that measuring waves and particles was largely a function of the measuring apparatus itself, demonstrates that reality is difficult to pin down, existing in simultaneity, immeasurability, and uncertainty. When Bohr discovered it was the structure of an apparatus that determined particle or wave (Barad, 2007), dualities came tumbling down, as did notions of representationalism: “the independently determinate existence of words and things” (Barad, 2007, p. 107). Quantum physics challenges our notion of finite, discrete, or smallest entities, recognizing that the world is in a constant state of indeterminate relational flux.  

We harness Barad’s (2007) notion of the apparatus to illuminate a question central to this paper: How might utilization of rhizomes as an apparatus shift our relationship and thinking of curriculum? As traced above, the tree has been the measuring apparatus of curriculum. Rhizomatic becoming, as articulated by Deleuze and Guattari (1987), may offer a different measuring apparatus. The visual imagery of these new sciences offers us alternative means of thinking curriculum. Given our mapping of the impacts arborescent models have had upon our thinking curriculum, the new sciences give us language and ways of being in the world that might open possibilities to deterritorialize the striating reterritorialization of the tree which has become so normalized in our thinking as to make it impossible to conceptualize education outside of the teaching machine. This is a curriculum of becoming.

Taken for granted boundaries such as knowledge, knower and known, teacher and student, academic disciplines, research endeavors, and we would argue, the whole assemblage of academic fields are made impossible to think in rhizomatic conceptualizations of curriculum. Thinking rhizomatically stretches boundaries of dichotomies-borders-striation, asking us to “reorient ourselves profoundly in relation to the world, to one another, and to ourselves” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 6). In emphasizing all matter and meaning as productive, agentic, and in relationship to organic-nonorganic-environmental-unbounded realities, we are carried to new ontological spaces. We imagine and entangle across “choreographies of becoming” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 10). In a constantly shifting, emergent, and relational cosmology, not only does “matter” become, but so too curriculum becomes. This becoming occurs in each intra-action with text, sound, human, more-than-human, organic-inorganic, spatial forces.

We consider curriculum a vitalist force of the universe. We are drawn to Jane Bennett’s (2010) understanding of vitalism as applicable to the study of curriculum, specifically that by rejecting absolute knowledge “one can ‘plunge’ into it [existence], watching with wonder as new meanings emerge and striving creatively to express, indeed to emulate, the formative process before it is overwritten by reifying discourses and performances” (p. 102). What would it mean for us to be a rhizomatic-machine? We engage this assemblage because it creates new spatial relations, free of representation, of objectification, for the imaginings, the unfolding, the emergent choreographies of becoming that is a living, breathing, always self-organizing, disequilibrium; in other words, a curriculum of becoming.

A rhizomatic curricular assemblage is an onto-epistemological space, deconstructing the very notion of knowledge and autonomous subjects as conceived by arborescent models of curriculum. A curriculum of becoming recognizes “knowledge making is not a mediated activity . . . knowing is a direct material engagement, a practice of intra-acting with the world as part of the world in its dynamic material configuring, its ongoing articulation” (Barad, 2007, p. 379). Thus, the separation between knower (teacher) and non-knower (student) is dissolved: “In traditional humanist accounts, intelligibility requires an intellective agent . . . and intelligence is framed as a specifically human capacity” (Barad, 2007, p. 379). In a rhizomatic curriculum of becoming, “intelligibility is an ontological performance of the world in its ongoing articulation” (p. 379), and thus since the world is constantly being articulated, the very concept of curriculum becomes impossible to think in arborescent, representational terms.

A curriculum of becoming no longer takes as its central starting point the autonomous subject; consequently the very notion that there are students who are deficient or lacking becomes obsolete and absurd. There are no longer independent, determinate boundaries called students, schools, or teachers—because these are products of the measuring apparatus of curriculum rooted in the tree. There are only nomadic subjects (Braidotti, 2012), potentia, experimentations with thinking, and opportunities to transform “flows and energies, affects, desires and imaginings” (Braidotti, 2012, p. 33). Braidotti’s (2012) “post-identitarian view of what constitutes a subject” (p. 33) maintains that the subject cannot be understood as “a biological nor a sociological category,” (p. 33) or for our purposes, a linguistic or educational category. Instead the subject is always becoming (Eaton, 2016).

In a rhizomorphous curriculum of becoming, we envision curriculum as a verb, not a noun. Curriculum moves toward the living, breathing, dancing curriculum discussed by Doll (1993) and Baker (2001)—and, we open possibilities for new spaces of imagining. In other words, a curriculum becoming is not a curriculum of epistemology—what we know—but rather one of onto-epistemological ethical relationality in which we are in a state of constant indeterminacy (Barad, 2007)—we are continuously discovering, experiencing, thinking through, embodying, and plugging into a circuitry and web of relations too complex to untangle and represent. There is no longer the category or concept of student and teacher, but an ongoing process of intra-actions in which we are engaged in a continual mapping and tipping of subjectification (Biesta, 2014).


Processes of deterritorialization are the movements which define a given assemblage since they determine the presence and quality of the lines of flight. Lines of flight in turn define the form of creativity specific to that assemblage, the particular ways in which it can effect transformation in other assemblages or in itself.

Deleuze and Guattari (1987, p. 531)

For Deleuze and Guattari, deterritorialization is a complex process involving at least a deterritorializing element and a territory that is being reconstituted. To deterritorialize can be understood as movement producing change. According to Parr (2005), deterritorialization indicates the creative potential of an assemblage, a line of flight. Deterritorialization frees up the fixed relations that contain a body all the while exposing it to new organizations.

As we have suggested from the beginning, our project is not one of leaving behind the tree and progressing to the rhizome; this is an impossibility. The tree and rhizome are mutually constituted. While the tree has been a strong force in Western epistemological thought, it can and does provide lines of flight in which transformation of its own assemblage can be put in motion. Real transformation requires the recombination of deterritorialized elements in mutually supportive ways that involve assemblages of connection rather than of control.

As such, assemblages characteristically have functional capacities but do not have a function—that is, they are not designed to only do one thing. Curriculum as an assemblage takes into account both “the constellation of elements comprising it as well as the processes resulting from the different ways those processes combine and interact” (Strom, 2015, p. 2). An arborescent curriculum understood as a discrete entity, independent and functioning outside of an assemblage, is what we seek to deconstruct through the concept of deterritorializing. Deterritorialization is a movement by which we leave the territory, move away from spaces regulated by dominant systems of signification. Deterritorialization is a movement that recognizes that the compulsory education machine is not the only curricular assemblage.

The arborescent assemblage we have articulated as dominating contemporary education is concerned with the production of data, in order to generate knowledge that functions to represent through naming and ordering the word/world. Alternatively, as we suggested at the beginning of this article, this arborescent view has resulted in a system of education that dehumanizes through the reduction of human beings to data, as deficit and differentiated. This process of separation, as Haraway (2000) reminds us, is what makes “knowledge” commodification possible. The reduction of education to an input-output system, the continual quest to make education more standardized is not education, but rather technology.   

The dominant curricular assemblage in which the tree functions to structure an input-output transaction is a compulsory education machine that compels obedience. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) suggest that “when the school mistress instructs her students on a rule of grammar or arithmetic, she is not informing them, any more than she is informing herself when she questions a student. she does not so much instruct as ‘insign,’ give orders or commands” (p. 76). The reduction of education to information/representation is about obedience to the order-word. To deterritorialize means to plug into language not as representation, in other words not as operating between something seen (or felt) and something said, “but always from saying to saying” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 76). For Deleuze and Guatarri, language is about communication, not the transmission of information. This shift or difference in language resituates the subject from an object of language, to one in which subjectivity is always brought into being through/in language; a process of subjectification (we will return to this concept shortly). This disruption of language as representational, to one in which language is understood as a relationship of communication, is critical to the ongoing deterritorializing of curriculum.

We find the concept of deterritorializing particularly useful in thinking about the current language of curriculum; specifically, the language that is necessary to “think” curriculum and make it possible as a category. This required language consists of: learning, teaching, student, and knowledge. These concepts have become so normalized in regard to curriculum that they are difficult to problematize. What we propose is a conversing in which the language of education is deterritorialized. If learning, and its corollary concepts, teaching, student and knowledge, are the territory of the tree, the compulsory teaching machine of obedience, then we must disrupt these concepts. Thus, we shift the assemblage by suggesting first and foremost that the purpose of education is not learning. “Learning” is a postulated concept. As Huebner (1999) points out, “If change is detected and it is assumed to be related to interaction with the environment, it can be said that learning occurs” (p. 133). However, there is no such “thing” as learning. Learning is an abstract concept and is assumed to be something that happens within the individual. Obviously, this is not the case given that individuals are not separate from the world.

Rather than learning, we are drawn to Karen Barad’s (2007) concept of entanglement, which she discusses as relational, rather than a property of separately identified objects (Figure 11).

What we need is an understanding of the material-discursive practices by which these connections are formed and reformed, not in space and time but in the very configuring and reconfiguring of spacetimematter. In particular, the responsible practice of science requires a rich genealogical accounting of the entangled apparatuses or practices that produce particular phenomena. (Barad, 2007, p. 388)

We are, as Barad maintains, always entangled. Entanglement allows us to look at the whole assemblage, and how all is enmeshed. Thus learning, a postulated concept, becomes difficult to think from an entangled, rhizomatic, relational conceptualization. There is only entanglement and momentary intelligibility.  

Figure 11. Karen Barad’s Entangled Genealogies


Gert Biesta (2010) has highlighted how the language of learning is grounded in the assumption that calling someone a learner/student means there is something to be learned. In other words, the subjectivity of the learner is constructed as deficient, lacking, and incomplete. What is problematic in this set-up is the assumption that an educator is needed to intervene for learning to take place and that “the learner is not capable to learn by himself” (Biesta, 2010, p. 541). The learner, in other words, requires someone to explain. This “explicative order” functions ironically to demonstrate that the “learner” is incapable of understanding something independently, without explanation. Consequently, the very concept of learning (and traditional curriculum which becomes the explanation machine) is predicated on inequality, on lack. We maintain that modernist constructions of curriculum (whether they be derived from social efficiency, social reconstruction, progressivism, or behaviorism) (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995) are inherently predicated on the fundamental assumption of human inequality. Alternatively, we suggest the radical possibility that curriculum is not about learning. When curriculum begins with the premise that human beings, and more than human beings, are always already embedded in complex systems that are self-organizing, autopoietic, and intra-active, the very concept of the individual student, teaching and learning become obsolete. Given that we are embedded in systems in which we are always becoming, static/independent/unitary concepts like student/teacher and the concept of learning that convey transmission must be radically rethought and deterritorialized in order to convey an ongoing, generative, process of becoming.  

Education is not transmission, or the change from ignorance to knowledge, but being present to the dynamic, relational spaces in which we are becoming. There is no object (student) or subject (teacher) as independent objects because we are always emerging in intra-action. There is no subject; only subjectification. D/reterritorializing is a spatial shift through which connections previously made impossible are made lines of flight through making connections to the web of life. The classroom (whatever this may be) might actually not change at all, but how it is navigated will shift. No longer are there 30 individual students, there is one interconnected web/system in which all are enmeshed, dependent on each other.  

As Biesta (2014) suggests, curriculum is an act of creation, of inciting imagination, not of learning or teaching, metaphors that are deeply embedded in an epistemological worldview which privileges not only the naming of the world through language, but assumes a “subject”—a learner/teacher. Consequently, a primary place where we “deterritorialize” the assemblage of curriculum is the language of learning. There is nothing real about the concept of the student or the teacher. Alternatively, the circuit we plug into is one grounded in an onto-ethico-epistemological worldview that does not have at its center a “humanist” or “linguistic” perspective. In other words, we seek to acknowledge that as human beings we are only “made” possible as we are constituted in relation to all that is; all is material.

While the curriculum field has sought to define and redefine itself in response to previous articulations of curriculum we maintain that this is a futile gesture that places a stranglehold on curriculum because it seeks a tidy, linear story of progress through which curriculum becomes intelligible. This is the curriculum of arborescence. We seek no such intelligibility. We seek instead to be present in the relationships that are curriculum. Curriculum is meant not for explication, but exploration of the “networks” of possibility that breathe life into the creative spirit which is curriculum. Given the premise that curriculum is a living assemblage, embedded in a complex network of relationships one can plug in wherever one would like. There is no starting point. Curriculum is an entangled assemblage that is so intertwined it defies simplification or disentangling. Curriculum as explication has relied on a canon or a body of knowledge that has resulted in a closed system. A rhizomatic assemblage seeks to de-territorialize the textual striation of curriculum provoking a seismic shift or way of being in the world.


Unearthing the assumptions of our current curricular assemblage—rooted in arborescent models of the tree—has been central to our understanding of the pervasive hold that dominant constructs of curriculum as technocratic, input-output, machine-like, and deeply embedded in deficit thinking have had on conceptions of education. Our central argument in this article has been to recognize the power and striated nature of arborescent thinking in Western conceptions of curriculum. Like Delezue and Guattari, we are also “tired of trees.” However, we are not ready to abandon them. Like Strom (2015), we are continually reminded that trees and rhizomes are mutually implicated. We maintain that trees, rather than functioning as isolated visual metaphors and organizing proclivities need to be put back or “plugged into” the garden~forest in order to create lines of flight which electrify curriculum as a living, breathing, rhizomatic relationality. It is by thinking rhizomorphously that we can envision new possibilities that are more life sustaining—that resituate the human as part of a cosmic relationality of the world, rather than objects and data produced by the teaching machine.

Clearly, we have not been the first to argue that changes in education grounded in a more relational, holistic, and onto-ethico-epistemological manner are essential to re-envisioning education from a reductionist, technocratic paradigm (Greene, 1995; hooks, 1994; Noddings, 1984). While dominant constructs of educational discourse argue for sweeping “reforms” (Cochran-Smith, 2013; Darling-Hammond, 2010) these reforms are still deeply embedded in notions of linear progress, finding better methods, and improving the system we have. However, they do not address that it is the very system, one that is closed, linear, and teleological, that is problematic. No amount of reform will bring about shifts if they are still grounded solely in the tree. The tree must be “plugged back” into the garden; it must be reconnected to the rhizome.

The educational implications or lines of flight that our discussion can take are of course infinite and indeterminate. We also acknowledge that there are many ways in which teachers already embrace the complexity/entanglement that is education. Resituating the tree (closed system) as part of the forest/garden (open system), and re-visioning the root (closed system) as part of the rhizome (open system) is a process that shifts the paradigm of education from an epistemological project (one of knowledge production) to an ethico-onto-epistmological process. Plugging the tree into the forest/garden requires an understanding of the relationship between/with these entities not as separate objects, but as co-constructed, interdependent, and indeterminate lines of flight that are always in the making/becoming. For those of us engaged with education this shift means “thinking” and “acting” in ways that understand the classroom as a complex system of ethical~relational processes that can never be reduced to reductionist, simplistic constructs of teaching as method. Understanding education and the classroom as a complex, ecological system shifts the focus of education to one of relations. These relations extend beyond the classroom or school, they are relations that connect these “institutions” to larger historical, social, political, and cultural networks across time/space.  

In order to understand these networks we maintain that the tree must be reconnected to the forest/garden. For teacher education specifically, this might mean situating the concept of “method,” or teaching as a procedure of steps, within a historical context that illuminates how concepts of schooling, method and teaching are recent inventions of the modernist period. The reduction of teaching to a science, as opposed to an ethics of relationality means that we have chopped down the forests and all we have left are individual trees. We do not study the forests anymore. Everything has been reduced to methods, management, testing, data, resulting in a dehumanization of education. To resituate the tree in the forest entails that teacher education be entangled in the philosophical, ethical and historical dimensions of education. How might teacher education curricula be reimagined as an ethics of relationality? Imagine if philosophy and ethics were as central to the curriculum as methods/management/assessment courses? This kind of curricular shift in teacher education will of course only result from a radical paradigm shift in which it is no longer possible to think that there are individual students and teachers. Alternatively, classrooms are understood as complex, open systems which function as holistic phenomena. As a complex system the classroom is not understood as made up of individual, independent objects with boundaries (students), but as a holistic phenomenon that is engaged in the ongoing process of intra-action or becoming. Without the “individual” unit there is of course no need for high stakes accountability as we know it; in other words, testing of individuals. Instead, accountability would shift from an emphasis on trying to represent “learning” to one of mutual responsibility for engagement in the process of becoming. We have seen this shift already in countries like Finland, South Korea, and Singapore who have eliminated high stakes testing as a form of assessment to label teachers and students, but instead use tests as a measure for assessing how responsive and responsibly systems have been working. The emphasis is not on determining “failing schools,” “achievement gaps,” or “ineffective teachers”, but on determining what relationships need support and resources in order to work more harmoniously.

This curriculum of becoming requires a sense of humility, a recognition that we are never separate from, but part of a much larger whole that is interdependent. Constituting curriculum as complicated entanglement understands student-teacher as a process of becoming and knowledge as momentary intelligibility. This is an ethico-onto-epistemological cosmology in which curriculum is no longer striated as data, deficit and depletion but as the possibility for becoming fully engaged with the wonder and awe critical to education as an ethics of becoming.


1. Curriculum scholars (Davis, 2004; Doll, 1993; Hamilton, 2009) have long critiqued technocratic notions of curriculum by tracing the roots of curriculum to modernist, Cartesian notions of rationality and method. This article traces the history further back.

2. The concept of West and East is highly problematic in education and cultural studies (Said, 1979). We acknowledge our mapping in this paper unintentionally leaves out traditions of the East and potential tracing of the tree from their historical and cultural traditions.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 11, 2019, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22804, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:30:17 AM

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  • Paul Eaton
    Sam Houston State University
    E-mail Author
    PAUL WILLIAM EATON is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University. Paul’s research interests include inquiries into digital technologies in education and human identity-subjectification-becoming; complexity theory’s application to educational research; postqualitative and posthumanist inquiry; and curriculum theorizing-philosophy in the realms of postsecondary education and student affairs. His recent publications include the book Troubling Method: Narrative Research as Being, co-authored with Petra Munro Hendry and Roland Mitchell, and co-authored articles, “Perturbing Possibilities in the Postqualitative Turn: Lessons from Taoism (道) and Ubuntu” in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and “Nomadic Subjectivity: Countering Neoliberal Subjectivity in Contemporary Student Development Theorizing” in Thresholds in Education.
  • Petra Hendry
    Louisiana State University
    E-mail Author
    PETRA MUNRO HENDRY is the St. Bernard Chapter of the LSU Alumni Association Endowed Professor in the College of Human Sciences and Education at Louisiana State University. She is the codirector of the Curriculum Theory Project and teaches graduate level courses in curriculum theory, traditions of inquiry, and curriculum history. Her scholarship examines the role of narrative in the construction of curriculum history, educational research and teachers’ life histories. She is the author of six books including, Engendering Curriculum History (2011, Routledge) and her most recent book, Troubling Method: Narrative Research as Being (2019, Peter Lang) is co-authored with Roland Mitchell and Paul Eaton. Recent articles have appeared in Curriculum History, History of Education, American Journal of Education, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, and Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Educational Research Association, Division B.
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